I am somewhat upset with myself this morning because I didn't follow up on an idea a couple of weeks ago and now am forced to do so by further events. I haven't been very kind to Condeleeza Rice here, and in particular, I have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the supposed change of course she had produced in the foreign policy of the Bush Administration. The deal over nuclear weapons with North Korea, which John Bolton promptly attacked, showed that these rumors had some truth to them, at least with respect to that issue. It was a welcome step back towards sanity that might actually reduce the number of nuclear powers by one--even though it only makes up for six years of useless confrontation driven by neoconservative ideas. Today the New York Times includes more evidence that the shift is real: a long interview with Robert Joseph, the leading non-proliferation specialist in the State Department, who frankly opposed the deal with North Korea because he thought it would allow the regime to survive longer and who now argues that the foreign and defense policy bureaucracies are back in charge. Clearly, the hawks no longer feel so in charge. In addition, over the last month the drumbeat of confrontational rhetoric towards Iran has quieted down.
All this is mildly encouraging, but not all the trends are running in the same direction. Mr. Joseph is gone, but Phillip Zelikow has been replaced by Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins, a student in the first lecture course I ever gave, who advocated war with both Iraq and Iran in the wake of 9/11. His appointment has led to a lively three-way controversy in the mildly conservative magazine The National Interest (available on line), in which two of the three controversialists suggest that he is being rewarded for having been recklessly wrong. They quote some of his early op-ed pieces, but they do not mention the one I blogged about last year, in which he argued that the American military had suffered a significant defeat in Iraq and desperately needed a victory somewhere else to restore its prestige. It seems to me very unlikely that Cohen is going to contribute to any significant change in our Middle East policy.
I would guess, then, that the struggle between hard-liners and less hard-liners (that is the most left-wing description I can think of for Rice, who advocated the preventive war doctrine as National Security adviser), is continuing. Perhaps Vice President Cheney's health problems have temporarily changed the balance of power, or perhaps the White House is too distracted by its domestic problems to ride herd on State the way it previously did. Rice is also making a show of a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, although she does not dare go further than to meet with a couple of ministers in the new unity government who do NOT belong to Hamas--not with a real representative of that government. (Meanwhile, in a perhaps significant bellwether of things to come, Nicholas Kristof essentially endorsed Jimmy Carter's position on that conflict last weekend.) The winds have changed a bit over the last couple of weeks, but we have also had heavy snow here in central New England, and that does not mean that spring will be with us soon.